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Book woman of Madison Avenue

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Full of high spots: Bibi Mohammed’s collection.
Full of high spots: Bibi Mohammed’s collection.

PRADEEP SEBASTIAN

Bibi Mohammed, of Imperial Fine Books, on how she got into the world of rare books and fine bindings.

“So, what are the high spots in the bookstore now?” I asked Bibi. And realised at once how foolish the question was in a room full of high spots: fine bindings and rare books. “Let me show you,” she said, getting up. I followed her to a glass-fronted bookcase which she unlocked with a key that looked as antiquarian as the surroundings, and carefully brought out an exquisitely bound book. Fitzgerald’s Omar Khayyam, she said softly, “And look, jewelled binding. By Paul Riviere, London, 1879. Adorned with 86 semi precious stones. A completely one of a kind binding”.

I was inside Imperial Fine Books, owned and run by Bibi Mohamed, one of very few high-end book dealers of Indian origin in the world of fine books. And certainly the only Indian woman in the rare book business in New York, possibly the country. Imperial Fine Books, located on upscale Madison Avenue in midtown Manhattan, is the leading specialist in leather-bound sets and fine bindings.

Something special

“Come have a look at this Kipling set, there’s something special about it,” said Bibi. She slid a volume out and opened to the title page, and placed her finger opposite the frontispiece: it was signed by Kipling. She handed it to me. It occurred to me that this copy had been touched by Kipling, probably held by him. And now I was holding it. “My God, you have signed editions, too?”

“A few,” she said, smiling, and was already walking away to another part of the bookstore. “Come”. It was the complete works of Arthur Conan Doyle, signed by the author (once again it didn’t escape me that I was handling the very copies that Conan Doyle had handled); 1930, bound in tan morocco, all edges gilt, raised bands with marbled endpapers. The price? $26,500. “Not too long ago we had a copy of The Fountainhead, signed and inscribed by Ayn Rand.”

Imperial Fine Books feels like one of those finely appointed libraries you see in a magazine or a movie set. Leather-bound books from floor to ceiling, antique furniture around the room, and plush sofas to sink into. On the open shelves were entire sets of Dickens, Emerson, Tolstoy, Balzac, Hazlitt, Wordsworth, Browning, Conrad, Hardy, Melville and a few high spots like first editions of Alice in Wonderland, The Jungle Book, and the A.A. Milne Pooh books. I handled the books gingerly at first and when I grew more confident, browsed less self consciously. (At some point, I had even begun to pretend that I was in my personal library; I was only missing the evening jacket and pipe).

Many book collectors and rare book dealers consider leather-bounds more decorative than valuable, preferring unsophisticated (unrestored) bindings and first editions with dust jackets. Lacking jackets, the leather-bounds look elegant and stately but uniform. Though, if you look carefully, you’ll see the dazzling craftsmanship of gold tooling, raised bands, and multi-coloured labels, off-setting the sameness of leather-bound spines.

Modern kinds too

And in a bookshop full of fine bindings, leather-bounds are the very picture of cosy antiquarian bookishness. I spent a little more time looking at modern editions: leather sets of the entire run of Fleming’s Bond books. It was oddly gratifying to see Goldfinger retooled in leather. The last time I read from a Bond book it was a tattered paperback. I noticed that the average cost of one volume here started at $1,500 and went up to $50,000 for a set. There were also a few modern editions for less. Fortunately, or perhaps less fortunately, I was here merely to look, not buy, and to find out more about Imperial Fine Books.

“Who are you?” I asked Bibi, “and how did you create such a fine bookstore?”

“I’m originally from British Guyana, and many generations before my family came from India. My father is a Muslim, my mother was a Hindu. We lived in the Bronx, in a poor neighbourhood. I interned at ‘J.N Bartfield Fine and Rare Books’. Working there, I began to learn the antiquarian book trade. In the evenings and weekends I began to slowly buy my own books, whatever I thought was interesting and valuable in the fine books market, with an eye to one day selling books myself.

“So Imperial Fine Books began in a basement?”

“You could say it did! Because I made my first sale there.”

Success story

From a basement in the Bronx to this elite upstairs gallery on Madison Avenue – an immigrant success story in the world of fine books unlike any I had heard. Mohamed had told me earlier that she had just returned from the London book fair and I asked her what she had bought. “It wasn’t very successful but I was happy to get hold of these.” She pointed to a set of books on the table, and I picked up one. “History of India, Romesh C. Dutt, nine volumes in all, profusely illustrated. Bound in 3/4 red morocco, marbled boards, top edges gilt. And put out in 1906 by none other than the Grolier Society!”

“And the price?” I asked.

“$2,500; the Grolier books are collectibles.”

In the rare book trade, a dealer is usually called a bookman, and it’s rare to spot a bookwoman. Bibi Mohammed has been a bookwoman in the fine books business for 25 years now, and I was curious, before I left the bookshop, to find out what the experience had meant to her.

“I can’t forget the time I outbid Sotheby’s for a collection of Cosway bindings signed by C.B. Currie, and the day I acquired a magnificent jewelled binding by Sangorski & Sutcliffe of Wordsworth poems, adorned with l40 precious stones. What I’ve enjoyed most is putting whole libraries together. It’s been a privilege to be surrounded by such fine books, and to commune with them on a daily basis. I’ve been lucky, but also feel a sense of destiny that I was meant to do this.”


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